Jan 31, 2005

From the Archives

Survey Shows How Christians Share Their Faith

The United States may have more born again Christians than any other nation in the world–with nearly 100 million children, teens and adults saying they are assured of eternal salvation solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

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This information, drawn from national surveys by The Barna Group, begs the question: how are Americans drawn to faith in Jesus Christ? The Barna Group survey data are not based on self-classification as “born again;” this status is based upon people actively inviting Jesus Christ to save them from the consequences of their sins by praying for forgiveness and a changed life. New survey data from The Barna Group examine how born again adults attempt to enable those who are not born again to have faith in Christ.

Most Born Again Adults Proselytize

One of the key findings of the research was that a slight majority of born again adults – 55% – claimed to have shared their faith in Christ with a non-Christian during the prior 12 months. That figure has remained relatively constant during the past decade.

Some groups within the born again population were more likely than others to have engaged in outreach efforts. For instance, two-thirds of evangelicals (66%) had shared their faith, compared to just two-fifths (41%) of those who are associated with mainline churches. While six out of ten Protestants had shared their faith (61%), less than four out of ten born again Catholics (37%) had done so.

There were also some surprising regional disparities. By far the lowest rate of evangelistic activity occurred among Midwestern born again adults: just 41% of them shared their faith. Unexpectedly, the most prolific evangelizers were in the western states, where two-thirds (65%) had engaged in personal outreach efforts. The South and Northeast – often assumed to be the bright and dark spots, respectively, in regard to evangelistic efforts – feel in-between the extremes (58% of northeastern and 59% of southern Christians shared their faith).

Another major difference related to race. Whites were less likely to share their faith than were people from the two largest racial groups. While half of all born again whites (49%) evangelized in the past year, almost two-thirds of born again blacks (63%) had done so and three-quarters of born again Hispanics (76%) were active in spreading their faith views.

Crisis Prayer Tops Methods

The Barna survey explored nine specific approaches to sharing faith in Christ with non-believers. The most prolific method was to “offer to pray with a non-Christian who was in need of encouragement or support.” Eight out of ten Christians (78%) said they had done so in the past year. Nearly as common was an approach widely known as “lifestyle evangelism,” which was described in the survey as living in ways that would impress non-Christians and cause them to raise questions about that lifestyle. Three out of every four born again adults (74%) tried this means of outreach.

Another popular approach was to “start a discussion with a non-Christian in which you intentionally asked what they believe concerning a particular moral or spiritual matter, and continued to ask questions about their views without telling them they are wrong, but continuing to nicely challenge them to explain their thinking and its implications.” Known as “Socratic evangelism” because of its dialogical nature, seven out of ten believers (69%) said they had engaged in this approach.

About half of all believers utilized each of three alternative means of outreach. Among them was a form of moral confrontation (i.e., to “tell a non-Christian a specific behavior was inappropriate and then describe the biblical basis for your view and an alternative approach”). This moral confrontation approach had been used by 50% of born again adults during the prior year. The other means were event-oriented strategies: bringing a non-Christian friend to a church service (49%) or bringing them to an outreach event (45%).

The least widely used methods were giving evangelistic literature to people (undertaken by 35%); sending evangelistic letters or e-mails to non-Christian acquaintances (21%); and preaching on the street or in other public places (11%).

Methods Varied By Segments

The preferred outreach methods varied by people groups. For instance, adults under the age of 40 (i.e., Baby Busters) were by far the most likely to practice Socratic evangelism (81% had done so) than were Baby Boomers (64%) or older adults (62%). In fact, it was the most popular of all outreach approaches among Busters. Lifestyle evangelism was much less widely utilized by Busters than by older adults. Young adults were also the most likely to evangelize via e-mail and other personal notes, but they were the least likely to rely upon giving others evangelistic literature (e.g., tracts, brochures, booklets, etc.).

Geographically, Christians living in the West were the most likely to use a Socratic approach while those residing in the South and Midwest were the least likely to do so. On the religious continuum, that dialogical method was a favorite of evangelicals but was considerably less common among Catholics and mainline Protestants. As might be expected, this approach was also more popular among college graduates than among those without a college degree.

Event-based evangelism was more likely to be used by women than men. Those with limited levels of education also favored it.

The survey results indicate that evangelizers have several preferred methods they rely upon. For instance, Christians who engage in moral confrontations and in passing out evangelistic literature are also more likely than other evangelizers to be involved in street preaching. Individuals who invite non-Christian friends to church services or to outreach events are also more likely to utilize evangelistic literature.

By the same token, some outreach efforts have a negative correlation with the use of other methods. People who bring friends to church with them are much less likely than the norm to also enter into Socratic evangelism – that is, to engage the friend in a multi-episode conversation about issues or perspectives designed to cause the non-Christian to think more deeply about matters of truth and faith. Similarly, Christians who rely upon events for outreach impact are notably less likely to also interact with their non-Christian friends in the more “in your face” approaches, such as moral confrontation or crisis prayer.

Changes in Strategy

George Barna, whose company conducted the research, noted that there is a significant change in evangelistic approaches taking place in the U.S.

“Young adults are much more likely to share their faith through ongoing discussions with friends and through e-mail and instant message conversations than are middle-aged and older adults,” Barna explained. “They are less likely to engage in means that their generation finds offensive, such as street preaching or moral confrontation. The early signs suggest that the emerging generation – the Mosaics, who presently are in their early twenties down through early childhood – will continue along this vein. Ministries seeking to prepare people to effectively share their faith in today’s society would advance the process by enabling young adults to carry on knowledgeable conversations about the substance of the Christian faith and how it affects all dimensions of a person’s life. The ability to relate biblical principles to current issues and personal struggles – that is, to interact beyond the level of simply ‘getting saved’ – will be crucial for the future of effective outreach efforts.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data reported in this summary are based upon telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1014 adults conducted in late January and early February of 2004 by The Barna Group. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The sample included 385 born again Christians. Data regarding that segment have a maximum sampling error of ±5.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All non-institutionalized adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. The data were subjected to slight statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national ethnic and gender proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being classified as “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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